I have spent my life studying the Bible seeking to ground my beliefs in God’s Word. Biblical truths are those that I have spent years thinking through, debating, considering and reconsidering. In contrast, being dropped into a new culture has revealed to me that I have many beliefs that are not so well thought out. In fact, there is much of my worldview that I have never thought about at all, just accepted. The earth is round, mangos do not cause malaria, not everyone who is white is a European, and germs cause sickness. You can imagine Dave’s shock the other day when he was confronted after mentioning his illness had been caused by a virus. The response was, “Oh yeah, you Westerners and your ‘germs’.” You can imagine him blinking in front of this skeptic not knowing what to say.
From an outside perspective, we are often equally stunned to see what our neighbors accept as truth without thinking. In a language session with our neighbor, a slip of the tongue meant mispronouncing a Kwakum word. Instead of “speaking quickly,” the word meant “the monster that lives in the woman’s womb and often will be born with the baby.” Once again, there was a lot of blinking and stunned silence. After a few follow-up questions, we were convinced that there was not a shadow of doubt in his mind that such a monster existed.
Such beliefs are not merely humorous, however. Some of these beliefs relate directly to the Word of God and our neighbors relation to the spirit world. A recent language/culture session with a different partner revealed that in the Kwakum mind there is a whole host of spirit beings that impact their day-to-day life. We were told that the souls of the deceased become ghosts when they die and are free to roam about the land of the living, often tormenting the members of their family. Outside of deceased family members, there are four types of spirits named among the Kwakum:
- First of all, there are the kishashalembe, which are actually the spirits of local sorcerers who transform themselves into evil monsters. We have learned that sorcerers have supernatural power and, with the help of a sacred staff, they are free to turn themselves into pretty much anything they want at night, often to do harm to those in the village.
- Another spirit named ikono is a spirit that we can see at night. It is actually a cloud of smoke but when one follows that cloud, there is no fire at the bottom. When the person realizes there is no fire, then they know that what they are looking at is not actually a cloud of smoke but instead is again the spirit of a sorcerer who has transformed himself.
- Then there are the water spirits named the ijim. These spirits used to be people who lived miserable lives on the earth. They are both male and female and the women are said to have breasts that are so long, that they drag on the ground. These spirits trouble those who try to fish in the river, stealing their fishing poles and splashing up on land to put out their fires at night.
- The habija, however, are kinder ancestor spirits. They are omnipresent and omit a certain kind of cry to warn people that something will happen in their village, like a death.
Christianity Has Not Yet Touched These Beliefs
The man who explained to us these practices is a rare find among the Kwakum. He is literate and reads his Bible in French regularly and is also a catechist in his local parish. We have never met another Kwakum person who holds a candle to his knowledge of Scripture (given, most have never heard or read Scripture). And it was this man who calmly explained to us all these beliefs as matter-of-factly as we would sit down and describe the reality of germs to someone. He did not communicate any disbelief or any conviction that these beliefs are not in accord with the Bible.
So What do We Do with All This?
I fear that as you read of these spirits, you may shake your head and chuckle. We as Westerners tend to think of such beliefs as superstitions, fables believed only because the people are ignorant. Perhaps, some might say, if the Kwakum were just a little more educated, they too would see the folly of such ghost stories. And this would be the wrong response. It would be to chuckle at something that has eternal significance. These beliefs are not childish, they are demonic.
There are no Ghosts, but There are Demons
The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) explains that when we die we in fact do not come back to the earth but instead we go directly either to Hell, a place of torment, or Heaven a place of bliss. We are then sealed in one of these two fates with no possibility of escape.
If this is indeed true, then how can one explain supernatural encounters that people have, supposedly with their dead loved ones? Granted, some of these encounters may have more to do with imagination mixed with fear, but I have no problem saying that some encounters really are an experience with the supernatural.
Paul talks to the church at Corinth about making sacrifices to idols. He pauses for a moment to ask the question: “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?” (1 Cor10:19). He then responds to his own question: “No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God” (v.20).
Idols are nothing. They are just wood. Or in the case of our pastors people group (not Kwakum), they take the skulls of their ancestors and put them up on their houses and offer sacrifices to them. And these skulls, they are just bone and there is nothing about them that intrinsically has any type of power.
But, Paul says that these kinds of pagan sacrifices are actually sacrifices to demons and not to God. And so there is a spiritual component to sprinkling water in the corners of one’s house for protection and throwing part of one’s food on the ground for ghosts of one’s deceased grandparents. God considers these acts as sacrifices, not to one’s dead mother, but instead to demons. Paul then summarizes in verse 20 with “I do not want you to be participants with demons.” In other words, he does not want people to make sacrifices to what they think are their deceased loved ones.
This Knowledge is not an End, but a Means
We are not anthropologists. We do not learn about these spirits as facts to be noted in a journal and forgotten. These insights into the culture are not the end of our research, but instead are just the very beginning of a life of learning. Practices that lead people into bondage to demons are not “cool” or “exotic” but instead are weighty and have eternal consequences. Our desire, by God’s grace, is to learn all that we can about this people so that we can introduce them to a God who can set them free from all the aspects of their culture that enslave them.
In the words of Job, “He uncovers the deeps out of darkness and brings deep darkness to light” (Job 12:22). God is the one who reaches not just into darkness, but into the deepest pockets of darkness and brings it out as light. May he do that with the Kwakum people.